Eating dirt-covered humble pie

Earlier I bought myself a pair of 700C x 38 mm Panaracer Gravel King SK tires in preparation for a ride I got invited to. Said ride would take a very different path through my usual stomping grounds, with much less asphalt and much more of everything else.

The plan was to take our party of five through the fourteen or so trails that a few mountain bike enthusiasts within the property had hewn through the easements. Among us, I was the only one on a drop-bar bike.

I guess that was for good reason.

The very first trail, the one downhill stretch of the bunch, was not very comfortable to ride for me. It was a short stretch, but I felt like I would be ejected forward from my machine at any point because of all the roots that criss-crossed the trail. I was gaining too much speed too quickly, and without enough control over my trajectory. I had made it down in one piece, but this was only the beginning of the ride.

One of the easier, rootier trail sections. The roots were a constant presence and easily turned into hazards on more technical trails.

I was able to keep up with my ride buddies through the next couple or so trails, but it was this fourth or fifth one that would be my undoing. The sequence involved a dip, then a grassy climb to power up, and a right turn. I negotiated both the dip and the climb, but my momentum had come up slightly short and my front wheel didn’t have the grip to make the turn, thanks to more roots. Weight on the outside, I crashed and fell to the left, managing to scrape and graze my knee in the process.

Trails 1, me 0

Some scratches to the left STI lever aside, my bike Hyro was okay. I tried to continue on through the next few trails, but my dirt diet had convinced me to just hike through the harder spots…which was not easy on the very stiff Specialized S-Works 6 XC shoes, whose hard tread blocks didn’t give a lot of traction. When subsequent trails showed ever more gnarlier features, such as the very real risk of falling over into a dry creek, I finally got the memo and asked to bug out halfway through the tour of the trails before I could get myself seriously hurt.

Picturesque, but treacherous.

Even with more suitable rubber, as a cyclocross bike, Hyro’s TCX frame had just entirely the wrong geometry. It positioned my body weight farther forward than was advisable for such rough, rooty trails. No matter how much I played with my weight balance while out of the saddle and in the attack position, I was still just too far forward. I was clearly out of my element and had brought entirely the wrong tool for the job. Frustrated with how I’d humiliated myself in public, I took Hyro around the usual road loops instead, and perhaps evaluate the Gravel King SKs’ performance there.

After humiliation on the trails, these Strava segment PRs feel like a consolation prize.

Riding sufficiently angry can apparently yield new personal bests, as I discovered with the remainder of the ride, now done solo. Pumped to about 40 psi, the Gravel King SKs held road speed very well, and had no problems dealing with repeated intervals at 600 W. Any concerns I had about inertia negatively impacting their acceleration and deceleration were laid to rest, including some emergency hard braking to avoid an SUV that had made a left turn in front of me while I was mid-sprint. Riding sufficiently angry can also exhaust you quicker, though, so I ended up calling time after an hour and 23 km – not logging a lot of distance for the day.

The trail crash dealt me a final insult: the left upper BOA S2-S dial had cracked on the S-Works 6 XCs. This rendered the ratchet mechanism inoperable, meaning I had to forcibly pull my foot out of the shoe while the BOA dial was cranked down and under tension. I may or may not have a spare S2-S dial to replace this with, but my day on the saddle was truly over.

Clearly this dalliance was outside the design parameters of both Hyro and his new tires, the trails much too tight and rooty to be successfully negotiated. All I can say here, as part of my evaluation of the Gravel King SKs, were that they just weren’t made for this terrain. Truth be told, I may also be the least qualified to test their trail-readiness as I’ve ridden as an unapologetic roadie for the past eight or nine years.

Clearly not our finest hour. Right, Hyro?

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